Mar 19


current trends in socializationDominion: the Power of man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy

by Matthew Scully


A self-described conservative, sometime writer for George W. Bush, Matthew Scully has written a beautiful book in defense of animals. Rife with blood-chilling examples of casual or systematic cruelty to animals humans use for food, fur, or for fun (hunting), the book is particularly hard on conservatives and their attitude to animals as so many economic units without any rights of their own. Really, very hard—as it should be. So hard, it made me wonder about how it went over with Mr. Scully’s colleagues, who I’m sure didn’t take kindly to his criticisms.

The book’s central argument seems to be that where alternatives exist, we should let the poor non-human creatures be, because they have a right to enjoy their lives just as we do, and because being cruel to animals is shitty and beneath us as moral beings.

I have to mention that this book is better written and reasoned than most, and is a pleasure to read. Dominion examines our treatment of animals we raise as food, animals we hunt, whaling, the question of animal consciousness, etc. Throughout, Scully is consistently reasonable and perceptive, willing to call bullshit on scientists hiding behind jargon to avoid admitting that animals are conscious and experience pain and pleasure much as we ourselves do. Or on apologists for hunting and whaling when they accuse “environmentalist nutcases” of sentimentality in defense of animals while defending hunting or whaling on patently sentimental grounds.

On the question of whether animals are conscious, Scully examines the arguments of theorists such as John S. Kennedy and Stephen Budiansky at length. Scully doesn’t say as much, but one gets the distinct impression these guys begrudge other animals any and all consideration. They seem to believe consciousness is the consequence of language and the ability to conceptualize things. As if without being able to reflect on something we experience, we can’t be conscious of it. It seems a perversion of science to say that we can’t definitively prove animals possess consciousness, therefore we must act as though they do not—unless I severely misunderstand the aims and nature of science. And lest we become confused about the terminology and confuse consciousness with meta-consciousness, I will remind the reader again that when these guys are denying that animals are conscious they are saying that animals do not experience pain in any meaningful way, and therefore don’t deserve the consideration we accord our own species when we avoid inflicting wanton suffering on each other.

One wonders what it is that makes Mr. Scully a conservative. I reckon there’s more kinds of conservative than one, but the word carries certain specific implications in America today. For Mr. Scully’s colleagues at the National Review to accept him as one of their own, one assumes that he must share at least some of these assumptions. For example, it’s hard to imagine anyone being accepted as a conservative by other conservatives these days without agreeing with the idea that the less regulations are imposed on markets, the better. But throughout Dominion, Scully argues the opposite, at least in regard to animals:

Nothing in the natural world, (Tom Bethell) seems to be saying, is of value unless someone owns it. We can save the world’s elephants and tigers, but only by consigning them all to elephant and tiger farms, each creature in due course to be possessed and killed and thereby accorded value—a way of reasoning that reminds me of the businessman in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, who thinks that by counting up each star he assumes possession of it… (p.124)

Scully condemns the world Trade Organization for “reducing all moral problems to questions of economic advantage.”

Undoing decades of progress in more developed nations, the WTO treats animal welfare as an illegitimate question, a purely commercial consideration relevant only as it helps or hinders trade. In the global economy, even minimal consideration for animal suffering can be a competitive disadvantage.

And in his own mind and conscience—how does he reconcile his respect for life with his support, perhaps tacit, for a system that’s hellbent on destroying life wherever life is found? Or, when not outright murdering and torturing living things, as Scully freely admits, a system which by its purpose and design can’t do anything other than to channel the glorious multitude of different living creatures into just a few forms, selected solely for their usefulness as food or diversion for creature number one.

Because what, he thinks that capitalism has a place for wild things somewhere no one’s thought to look? Without twisting one’s logic, such a thing doesn’t exist. Capitalism has no place for intangibles like wildness, love, joy, community or personal growth. It reduces all social relations to the mercantile: is this profitable or not? If not, it makes no difference that the person/ activity/ place/ object in question offers profound fulfillment. These aren’t my opinions—this is what theorists and legislators of the capitalist system intend and say themselves, when they can get the ugly words through their teeth. These ideas are hateful to everyone, capitalists included, but they are not as hateful to them as money/power is desirable, apparently. So we get this foolery, where we try to ignore what we all know to be true.

There are compromises that seek to address the reductive, life-denying side of a capitalist social order with our basic need to live as anything other than wheels and cogs, slaves and masters. One such solution is the welfare state, a capitalist economy with restrictions placed upon the ravages and depredations of capital. But of course, this won’t do for hard-core capitalists and libertarians like those at the National Review.  The contemporary liberal democracy, the welfare state or “capitalism light”, is the program of the liberals of today, the Democratic party in the U.S. and the New Labor in Great Britain.

I’m not advocating for communism or any other alternative social organization here. I just want to be clear on the facts: the outcome of capitalism as we currently practice it is the disappearance of the variety of living beings, the impoverishment of life for all creatures, human and otherwise, and in the end, probably the death of the entire planet in every meaningful sense. A society which holds power and profit as its highest values can come to no other end.

Jan 17

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The average person would throw his freedom at the feet of the first person who would relieve him of it.

Erich Fromm would agree, though not for the same reasons.

Little need be said about a the plot and characters of a book as well known as this one. Much can and should be said about the historical context of the novel though, and about us, its readers, our ways and means, although I will likely as not fail at the task, being a stunted product of my time. Which is not to imply that our time is more stunted than another, and especially that of Dostoevsky, although the mid 19th century did have one big advantage over ours: the belief in progress as a force which will allow men to blossom.

Dostoevsky may be among the first to seriously doubt this notion. In this regard, it is significant that he comes from Russia, a peasant country with a long history of oppression and virtually no tradition of humanitarianism or liberalism of its own. Coming into contact with progressive western ideas of that sort, Dostoevsky doubted them based on his profound knowledge of people– Russian people. Unlike most progressives of his era, of which he was one in his youth, Dostoevsky came to the conclusion that the revolution will not find support among the masses; and he knew enough about the nature of power to understand that a revolution attempting to drag the peasants in its wake would simply turn out to be more of the same oppression. That pretty much leaves the conservative project of self-improvement as the only meaningful path an individual concerned with the plight of his/her species can pursue, paradoxical as that is.

Amazingly, we are in the same mess today we were in 150 years ago. The world is far from uniform: if you wonder what the “end of the world” will look like, you need look no further that certain parts of the Third World, and for a vision of what the liberal utopia of 19th century progressives looks like, by and large, check out Scandinavian welfare states, especially before the anti-immigrant reaction has started to settle in over the last decade. But the world as a whole is much the same colonial administration it was in 1850, getting more colonial by the minute. The options available to a conscientious individual are the same today as those available back then, meaning no meaningful option at all short of withdrawing from that one hopes to see changed. Such is our world.

The readers of Dostoevsky today will learn most from deciphering the context of his novels, seeing how the basic conditions of our lives haven’t changed all that much in the intervening century and a half, and are, as such, familiar to anyone who would bother to get their head out their ass. The verbose and challenging nature of a book like The Brothers Karamazov is a testament to a bygone era of verbal and critical virtuosity and involvement we have unfortunately lost along the way. For an English-language example of the same, see the Lincoln-Douglas debates: they are eloquent, complex, and challenging, and they were addressed to and expected to be understood by the average person of the time. Back when the main media of communication were verbal, everyone seems to have been able to follow complex arguments and appreciate beautiful turns of speech we have long given up in favor of visual sophistication, and interested enough in the issues of their day to do so. The main medium in use by a society has everything to do with the way a society conceives of and processes its world: see Neil Postman’s wonderful “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business”
for a detailed explanation.

The way we choose to convey our thoughts has a major effect on the thoughts’ content, and the main medium used by a society will influence that society’s values in profound ways. It seems that some people are starting to wake up to this fact– I heard an NPR story yesterday suggesting that the language spoken by a society has an effect on the way the members of this society conceive of and relate to money, for example. I suspect that the culture of Dostoevsky’s day lent itself to the “utopian” spirit of the progressives’ program, just as our culture today lends itself to the mercantile emphasis of our times, as well as the naked manipulation of individuals done in the name of democracy and freedom the world over.